Monday, May 30, 2016

"Can George Orwell Teach Catalonia a Lesson?"

"In the clear yet cold winter of 1936-1937 a 33-year-old George Orwell found himself fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.  He was to vividly record his experiences in Homage to Catalonia, one of the first-rate nonfictional books on the brutality of war. 

Now, with almost 50% of Catalans in favor breaking away from Spain, Spaniards are facing a possible fracturing of their country.  Absurd? Impossible? Illegal? Unconstitutional?  Well, Orwell had never imagined that the Barcelona he admired, where “the working class was in the saddle,” and where “there was a belief in the revolution and the future,” was to have “lies and rumors circulating everywhere, the posters screaming from the hoardings that I and everyone like me was a Fascist spy” in less than six months’ time.
No one is predicting that in today’s Spain fellow countrymen will be killing each other, and the Minister of Defense has said that Spanish military involvement will be unnecessary as long as everybody “fulfills their duty.”  But there are several salient historical and political parallels between what Orwell experienced in the Spanish Civil War and the current independence movement in Catalonia

Read more from source at El Pais in English here

Saturday, May 21, 2016

"Germany puts refugees to work ... for one euro [an hour]"

"With a spoon and spatula in hand, Zaid, a 23-year-old Iraqi refugee, lifts the lid on a large pot filled with goulash and potatoes as he begins his shift.

From 6:30 to 8 pm, he is employed by the city of Berlin to dish out dinner to 152 other Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan and Moldovan refugees in a sports hall, which had been turned into an emergency shelter for the newcomers.

Zaid is one of thousands of refugees who have taken on tasks ranging from repairing bicycles to pruning plants to cleaning sidewalks for pay of just over one euro ($1.1) an hour.

The so-called "one-euro jobs" have been touted as a springboard for the newcomers into Germany's job market, but experts remain skeptical about their effectiveness.

At the sports gym, Zaid tries to explain to the sceptical faces crowded in front of him what went into the beef stew that he described as "so German."

For the work that includes setting the table, cutting bread, serving food and then cleaning up, he is paid 1.05 euros an hour.

Restricted to working no more than 20 hours a week, Zaid gets a monthly income of 84 euros at best, a small extra on top of the 143 euros he receives as pocket money while he waits for the official decision on his asylum application."

Read more from source at GlobalPost here.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Varoufakis on Spain’s general election & Podemos’ prospects – op-ed in Newsweek

"Last July, Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s conservative prime minister, exited a 17-hour-long European Council meeting dedicated to Greece, wielding in front of the cameras the surrender document that his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, had just signed. 

Staring into the camera he told the Spanish people watching at home: “This is what you get by voting for parties like Syriza.”

The crushing of the Athens Spring, together with the soothing fairytale of Spain’s economic “recovery,” was meant to stem the rise of Podemos (a.k.a Spain’s answer to Syriza) and to lead Rajoy to a general election victory in December 2015. Alas, voters had other ideas, denying Rajoy a working majority, giving Podemos a larger share than the pollsters had predicted, and producing a hung parliament.

Since then, frantic negotiations between Rajoy’s People’s Party, the fading Socialists led by Pedro Sanchez, the newfangled neoliberal Citizens’ party and Podemos have failed to produce a coalition government, triggering a fresh general election. The new contest’s outcome will hinge on whether Podemos manages to rise from third to second place, pushing the Socialists into a fate similar to that suffered by the Greek socialists (PASOK) and awaiting the French socialists next year.

If Podemos fails, a grand coalition of the establishment parties, possibly with the addition of the Citizens’ party, is on the cards. But if Podemos manages to shrug off Syriza’s humiliation and overcome Rajoy’s fear mongering to become the second largest party, another hung parliament will spell the end of the two-party system. This will yield a Madrid government inimical to the troika and the ironclad majority that the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has surrounded himself with in the Eurogroup.

Such a development would spell trouble for Europe’s frazzled establishment which, for this reason, is now trying to rush through a new Greek austerity package before the end of May. The hope is to trap Athens into permanent debt bondage before the Spanish voters deliver a verdict likely to alter the balance of power within the Eurogroup.

But will Podemos manage to overtake the Socialists?"

Read more here.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

"East of interest" - My latest article for Catalonia Today magazine

[A man passing by the “light border” installation along the remains of the Berlin Wall. Photo: AFP.]

How little we know about the culture of that 'area of darkness:' Eastern Europe. 
Living within a few hundred kilometres of this region, most of us would be hard pressed to give the names of more than a handful of directors, actors or music groups from somewhere as close as the Czech Republic or even from the former East Germany. Communism blotted out an entire world of creative expression to those who lived in the so-called free West of Europe and tastes in cultural fashion have hardly reclaimed any of it.
Reading Polish writer Agata Pyzik's recent ironically titled book "Poor But Sexy" helps to uncover some of what she calls the 'culture clashes' between the two sides of the continent. 
She argues that twenty five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe is as divided as ever. Only occasionally using too much post-modernist academic jargon, she makes the highly convincing case that the Western 'democratic' world has maintained an arrogant assumption that everybody wants to 'buy into' their capitalist belief systems. As well as this, she acknowledges that conservative political failures (including missed opportunities on the left) have meant that market forces and greed have also triumphed over social or collective responsibility in the East, just they clearly have triumphed in the West.
But what Pyzik also does is give the reader a new insight into the arts in a part of the planet when all creative action had a political edge to it. Russian films of the post-war era obviously had a propagandist purpose (very often) but the Sots Art movement also got away with mocking 'unberaable, ritualised Soviet life' while simultaneously showing how the average person could attempt a normal existence among the ruins of the old world.
As well as this, writers such as György Lukács used a kind of Brecht-like critical realism to 'inspire and activate the reader.' In his earlier book "Man Without Qualities" - a superb title - he largely rejects modernity, seeing 'the tragedy of the modern artist as someone who lost the ground under their feet.' Surprisingly, he views this as 'an advance rather than a difficulty.' 
Again and again in Eastern Bloc culture Pyzik points out examples of the contradictions and paradoxes of the kind that seem to me to be a big part of French thinking but are so often overly simplified into the black-and-white certainties of Iberian habits of mind.
Another strength of this book is that it recognises the unheralded contribution of women in the East. 
It took the feminist film director Agnieska to accurately predict how female activism in Poland's Solidarity movement would be wiped from popular memory and when this is combined with how sexuality was restricted and banned in the movies across Communist nations, it is alarming how the idea of feminine purity was so dominant. In a patriarchal Catholic Poland 'full of open sexism' precious few women characters of equality got through to be seen.
And in this book there are countless references to the culture from the West so that we are not lost in unfamiliar names. Everyone from David Bowie to Ken Loach to Art of Noise gets a mention. There are plenty of relevant comparisons with contemporary Eastern culture, Pyzik finds. She ends with the disturbing statement that the populace of Eastern Europe "so strongly believe we don't deserve the normal conditions of a social democracy that we hardly fight for it." Let's not make that same mistake in other parts of the planet.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, May 2016.]

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Spain tops poll on accepting Syrian refugees

This poll is part of a fascinating wider international survey titled "Identity 2016" which also found that 'Global citizenship' is increasing at the expense of nationalism. To me, this is extremely encouraging.

"On the question of whether intermarriage was a welcome development" Spain and the UK were the countries most in favour.

Read more from BBC source here.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Saturday, April 16, 2016

"Brussels rebukes Spain for failing to take in refugees"

[Refugees and migrants wait in line for tea in a camp in Idomeni, on the border between Greece and Macedonia. Reuters]         

Last week on Catalan (English language) TV, I called for the European Union to hold back financing for Spain if the national government did not immediately follow up on it's previous agreement to welcome significantly greater numbers of refugees than it had done.

"Spain has only taken in 18 refugees since September 2015, when European countries pledged to help people fleeing conflict in Syria. 

In March, the Spanish government promised to speed up that rate by accepting 467 new refugees within that same month. 

But a European Commission report shows that nearly two weeks after the deadline expired, not a single one of those 467 people has arrived on Spanish soil.

Several European institutions are rebuking Spain for these disappointing numbers, and talking about "a lack of willingness" on the part of the Popular Party (PP) acting administration. Acnur, the United Nations refugee agency, joined that chorus of critical voices in Congress on Tuesday."

More from El Pais source article (in English) here.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

"From across the centuries" - An article about Shakespeare for Catalonia Today magazine

One of the greatest things about Shakespeare - one of the things I love most about his writing - is his rare ability to have his characters speak for themselves but also somehow show a more universal state of mind. 
His fiction is as real as it can get despite the fact that we are reading his words or hearing them said hundreds of years after he wrote his works.
In Shakespeare's famous play Hamlet, the title character, the Prince of Denmark is depressed. His father has been murdered by an uncle and his mother has quickly remarried. Hamlet feels compelled to take revenge for his father's death but his new isolation and sadness cause him to be on the point of suicide. He says:
"I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! ...The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither."
To me this is one of the most moving of Shakespeare's passages. I first heard it performed by Richard E. Grant, playing an unemployed actor in the final scene of the superb film, "Withnail and I." Here, the character is seemingly making a balancing act in his mind, weighing up the good and bad of his species and the universe we inhabit. His judgement is a heavy one, as if mankind does not merit a place in the cosmos. 
Or is Hamlet just speaking for himself alone? That is another beauty of Shakespeare's writing. He is a poet and surely the greatest in the history of the English language. His words are open to many interpretations still (even after thousands of academics have picked them apart syllable by syllable) and this pliability gives his ideas a freshness that never dries up.
As a wordsmith and creator of English, it's also generally accepted that no-one can be compared with Shakespeare. When he couldn't find a word to do the job he wanted he simply invented a new word and many of these words live on in the language today. 
 His writing benefited from him also being an actor. Shakespeare knew how lines could be delivered and had an extraordinary ear for how their musical rhythm would be heard by audiences.
Sadly, many people's experience of The Bard (as he is often called) was having his sometimes archaic language drummed into them by secondary school teachers who knew no better than the traditional methods. I was one of these victims and didn't rediscover the glories of Shakespeare's work until well into my twenties. 
Then I found that I too had to teach his plays. This was not easy but surprisingly, I learnt that my Catalan students were much more receptive to him than those kids I'd tried to teach Shakespeare in Australia or England. Catalan students had the advantage of already being bilingual and Elizabethan-era English was just another challenge. 
 Shakespeare's timeless themes will continue to reach out across the centuries, "to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow."

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, April 2016.] 
(The Flower Portrait above was long thought to be a contemporary painting of the Bard, but a 2004 investigation found it to be a 19th-century forgery. / Photo: ARCHIVE.)

Saturday, April 2, 2016

My latest appearance on The English Hour (El Punt Avui TV)
Last Thursday I was a guest again on Matthew Tree's round table chat show, Our Finest Hour

We talked about the Spanish government's disgraceful rejection of Catalan proposals to welcome 4,500 refugees, the most recent ranglings over who might make up the next administration in Madrid and the role of multi-lingualism in Catalunya.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

"France moves towards full ban on pesticides blamed for bee losses"

"French lawmakers approved plans for a total ban on some widely used pesticides blamed for harming bees, going beyond European Union restrictions in a fierce debate that has pitched farmers and chemical firms against beekeepers and green groups.

The EU limited the use of neonicotinoid chemicals, produced by companies including Bayer CropScience and Syngenta , two years ago after research pointed to risks for bees, which play a crucial role pollinating crops.

Crop chemical makers say the research blaming neonicotinoid pesticides is not backed up by field evidence and a global plunge in bee numbers in recent years is a complex phenomenon due to multiple factors."

Read more from source here.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Noam Chomsky Joins Democracy in Europe [DiEM25]

"Distinguished American linguist, philosopher and political activist, Noam Chomsky, has [this week] officially endorsed DiEM25, the Democracy in Europe Movement launched last month by Greece’s former Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis.

“The formation of the European Union,” explained Chomsky, “was a highly encouraging step forward in world affairs, with great promise.” However, in view of the American scholar, the EU “now faces severe threats, from within, tracing in no small measure to the attack on democracy.”

Upon becoming the latest signatory of the movement’s Manifesto, Chomsky affirmed, “[DiEM25’s] Manifesto is a bold effort to reverse the damage and restore the promise, an initiative of great significance.”

Read more from source here.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

"Refugees start arriving in government says “no” to closed borders"

"Prime minister António Costa’s willingness to take as many as 10,000 refugees - instead of the 4500 established by EU quotas - is being demonstrated today as the European Council holds its emergency summit in Brussels on what is universally recognised as the 'worst refugee crisis since World War II'.

Hours before the summit got underway, 64 ‘mainly Syrians and Iraqis’ touched down at Lisbon’s military airbase (Figo Maduro) to be received by dignitaries before going on to various destinations around the country.

A number - particularly children - were so frail and ill from gruelling months of uncertainty and inhospitable conditions in Greece that they had to be immediately transported to hospital, writes Público.

Talking to journalists, Costa’s deputy Eduardo Cabrita said the latest 64 which have followed 65 Eritreans who have arrived since December are “mainly Iraqis and Syrians”, with women, children and families making up most of the numbers, plus a few single people.

Next week, more will start arriving on commercial flights, he explained.

For now, Portugal’s new arrivals will be given accommodation in 15 locations organised by social solidarity, church and refugee support organisations."

- See more at:

Saturday, March 5, 2016

"The Wind-Water Sickness" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

[Japanese "onni" (devil) mask]
How do you get sick in Japan?

According to one Japanese teacher that I once talked to, a Mr Shiroi, he caught a cold because the school that we both used to teach at was in an “unfavourable” north-east position, when compared to his house. He had been working at this school for four years, he informed me, and had got sicker much more often than at his previous school, which was in a northwest direction. This was a ‘good’ location relative to where he lives, so he rarely found himself in less than perfect health.
Mr Shiroi told me that this extraordinary superstition was called fu-sui (wind-water) and has its roots in Chinese Confucian times, having a fairly committed belief amongst about 1 in 20 people in Japan, Mr Shiroi estimates. In China, he thinks it is over 10 per cent still.

Naturally, in our conversation I offered the opinion that it is actually germs that cause diseases, but this is only the ‘direct’ cause, he maintained. From this ancient nonsense, it seems that you can predict where the harmful things are, but they will only take effect on you if you have arrived at your destination from certain directions.

I contended to him that if somebody catches AIDS for example, it is because they shared a needle or bodily fluids with an infected person. In Mr Shiroi’s view it is also because they were ignorant of the warnings that, with special insider-knowledge, can be found.

Mr Shiroi then went on to inform me that all the important variables in fact changed on the night before ‘Setsubun,’ (which was only two nights before our discussion.) You see, the turning point for which directions are favourable is midnight on this ‘real’ New Year. Setsubun (literally "sectional separation") is a timed-honoured Japenese custom that marks the beginning of spring and is based on the solar calendar, not the lunar calendar used by the western world. A man puts on an onni (demon) mask and is chased out of his own house by the rest of the family who throw beans at him yelling the Japanese equivalent of bad luck out, good luck in! It is still practised in most Japanese households, he told me.

More interesting to me though were this otherwise well-educated man’s theories about predictability of natural phenomenon. I asked him if it was not only people’s houses and workplaces that came under the influence of this “cosmic compass.” Did it affect relationships? For example, if someone who was born in the town of Uji, south of Kyoto, and they married someone from say, Kameoka to their north-west, did this mean that their bond would be a successful one?

He believed it did, explaining to me that it is actually even better to marry a partner further along the same axis line. This struck me as another absurdity, particularly when taken to its logical extension. I argued that, according to his theory here, it would have been better for him to have married a woman from the very tip of Chile in South America rather than his current wife. “Oh, but you have to balance the idea with practical concerns,” he squibbed. I asked him what his wife thought about this. He said “Well, I got married before I learnt about these ways.”

I knew that just last year he had traveled to Morocco. He had previously told me that he liked it very much but that his wife never wanted to go back there again. Now, he filled me in, that particular tip of Africa had been the ‘second best’ possible place to travel to. It had been at times very difficult to find somewhere to go outside of Japan that was relatively “safe.”

Following these principles was limiting to his options, it seemed. I told him that former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s wife Nancy had experienced similar problems with a different brand of superstition.

[This article was first published under the title "How do you get sick in Japan?" in Catalonia Today magazine, March 2016,]

Sunday, February 28, 2016

"TTIP talks press ahead with new privileges for big business"

"The 12th round of EU-US trade talks ended in Brussels [on Friday] with negotiators pressing ahead to deliver new privileges for big business, said Greenpeace. 

The start of the talks was delayed on Monday after a blockade by Greenpeace activists, who warned against a “dead end trade deal” and called for an end to the negotiations. "

Read more from source here.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

"Steinbeck, Scuppers and trains" - My latest article for Catalonia Today magazine

As a child, the great American author John Steinbeck was inspired by a scene with a bird in it: a stork. He cherished a toy ‘Easter looking-egg’ which he loved to peer into through a tiny hole, seeing “a lovely little farm, a kind of dream farm, and on the farmhouse chimney a stork sitting on a nest." 

Steinbeck had taken this setting to be pure fantasy but to his surprise saw the same thing in real life one day in Denmark.

My own young imagination, before I could even read, had been fired by books like Margaret Wise Brown’s ‘Scuppers The Sailor Dog’ with its superbly memorable illustrations by Garth Williams. I would always ask my mother to read me this story and one scene in particular is imprinted on my memory even still. I’m sure that it fed my unconscious with a deep desire to travel.

Brave Scuppers is asleep in a warm bunk bed in his cosy, wood-paneled ship’s cabin. The ship is tossing because I can see that the light is swinging from the roof and outside through the round porthole window the sea is choppy. Under his bed are his new shoes that he picked out from a shop, pictured on the previous page. Scuppers rejected a different pair as being ‘too fancy’ because they were curly at the toe ends.

This shop (where he also bought a ‘bushel’ of oranges) had palm trees outside and a woman in a veil walking by, seemingly in a hurry. I’d never seen either of those things before and didn’t know the word ‘exotic’ then but that’s what I was thinking in my forming child’s outlook. When I got to Morocco twenty five years later and saw the same curly shoes that Scuppers had passed over, I felt what must have been a similiar satisfying surprise as John Steinbeck had once enjoyed.

Travel has a way of also emboldening us because we are out of the realm of home’s familiar touches.

Consciously, my love affair with travelling on trains began just over two decades ago when my partner Paula and I spent over three months on different forms of them getting across Europe. As a child and young adult I’d barely been on a train before but there was something either in my ancestral memory or a different kind of spark that kindled a vague interest in a different sort of transport, aside from buses or planes. Maybe it was hearing Neil Diamond on TV when I was eight years old. I still recall him singing:

It's a beautiful noise
Goin' on ev'rywhere
Like the clickety-clack
Of a train on a track
It's got rhythm to spare

In this song too he poeticised the sounds of big city street as music to the ear and my budding brain was intrigued by this idea. Living in quiet suburbia where the high-pitched ‘ninga-ninga of summer lawn movers was the most common weekend noise, I’d never heard anything like the kind of thing in Diamond’s lyrics and his clear affection for the pulse and grind of the metropolis. It has stayed with me in the same way that thoughts on a train trip from over twenty years ago will now and then float back into memory.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, February 2016.]

Saturday, February 6, 2016

"France becomes first country to force all supermarkets to give unsold food to the needy"

"Supermarkets in France have been banned from throwing away or spoiling unsold food by law.

The stores are now required to donate unwanted food to charities and food banks.

To stop foragers, some supermarkets have poured bleach over the discarded food or storing binned food in locked warehouses."

Read more from source here.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"Spain at last welcomes back the Sephardim"

"Following new legislation, the first descendants of expelled Jews get Spanish nationality..."

Read from from source at El Pais in English here.